A New Life
The doctor kept his word. He taught me how to make a nose from paper-mache and a false beard. He taught me how to use wax and wool to glue the false nose and the beard to my face. I would not be able to eat or drink with that on, I would not be able to do hard labor and he warned me that I ought to stay out of the sun especially in summer because heat would cause the nose and beard to fall off. He handed me a mirror to show the result.
To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement. The face I saw was still terribly ugly. My hair was short after it had been shaved to get rid of the lice, the color of the nose didn't really match the sickly color of my skin. I had lost much weight and was even more emaciated than ever, my eyes sunken in much deeper. Any corpse looked healthier than I did. Even with a nose I was horribly ugly.
"You will put on weight. That will improve your look."
"No. It won't. I have always looked like a corpse, no matter how much I eat or if I am healthy or not. I'm afraid your care - for which I am really grateful - is in vain."
He smiled sadly. "Take off the prostetic nose and look in the mirror, then put it on again. Use the mirror and take as much time as you need. You will always be ugly, I won't lie about that, but at least you no longer look like a freak. You look like an ugly man. That is an improvement."
During the next days I worked hard to learn how to make my look endurable and to my own surprise I had to admit that the doctor was right. I was still ugly, people would still stare and mock me, call me names, but they would not run screaming in terror at the first glimpse of my face.
It was an improvement of sorts. The magistrate came back to inform me that my name was Erik Thorsson and I was of Swedish heritage. I stared at him unkomprehendingly. "How do you know?" I asked, my surprise was genuine. I have never been in Sweden, knew nothing of that country and I knew perfectly well that my name was not Erik Thorsson. To tell the truth, I knew precisely what my name and birthday was, but I refused to use that name to protect my family from being connected with me. I could not do that to them.
The magistrate grinned, pleased with himself at his obviously perfect research work. "It was tricky," he admitted, "I had nothing but your looks and age. A Swedish girl named Thorsson came to Ostende to find her lover, a sailor. She had not known that he was already married. She had a son, Erik Thorsson, she had to surrender him to public welfare because she could not care for him. He was given to a fisherman who took in foster children. It must have been quite a scandal when it was discovered that Erik Thorsson had vanished because the fisherman had been paid to keep the boy. The fisherman confessed that the boy had gone missing, it was suspected that the boy died when the fisherman tried to teach him fishing and that the poor family had kept silent because they needed the extra payment for the boy."
"Why do you think I am Erik Thorsson?" I asked again. I knew I wasn't.
"Because in all the papers it reads "facial deformity" without any detailed description. I wrote to the fisherman. He replied that he is so happy to learn that you are alife and well and confirmed that the description I sent him matches Erik Thorsson. He is on his way to visit."
Now that was a problem. I was not Erik Thorsson and he would immediately know that. I was given some clothing, a normal suit and shoes, and led to a room where the magistrate introduced me to the fisherman who was supposed to be my foster father. I did not wear my prostetic nose but covered my face with a mask made of old linnen. I was ordered to take it of and the fisherman reacted as I had suspected - with a terrible scream. He covered his mouth with his hand and shook his head, his eyes wide with fear. I am sure he knew immediately that I was certainly not the missing boy.
What he did then surprised me. He came to me, took my arms in his hands and exclaimed: "That is him! That is my poor Erik Thorsson! I told you we didn't murder him! For twelve years we were suspected to ave killed the boy out of despicible greed, but here he is - we are rehabilitated!"
I understood what he was doing. The real Erik Thorsson was dead and he knew it - but he wanted to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of his peers by presenting to them a living Erik Thorsson. And this was my chance to whipe out the last ten years of my life. To pretend whatever I did in Persia and Turkey had never happened. All I had to do was playing his game. "I'm sorry I ran away," I told him.
He was taken aback, it took a very long time for him to recover. He filled in what the magistrate did not know - that I was eighteen years old and had run away. That he wanted to teach me fishing so I could help with his work but I had no talent for that. We both knew that this was a shameless lie, but we both knew we had to keep up the lie to protect ourselves. When we were given a brief time in private to reconciliate he confessed to me that the boy was dead, he had fallen out of the boat when he was only three years old and already forced to help his foster father with the hard work. They had pretended the boy was alife to get the montly financial help from the city for three years. Then the boy ought to go to school and it was discovered that he was missing. The real Erik Thorsson just had a harelip and looked nothing like me, but maybe he recognized me as a fellow fraudster, maybe it was some weird kind of honor among thieves, in the end we agreed that I was Erik Thorsson. I would get help from the city, he would get the money that he had to pay back after he was suspected to have killed the boy. It was a lot of money for a poor fisherman. We just agreed to keep our secret and trusted each other to keep that promise because neither one could tell the truth without confessing the cheat.
My new life was based on a shameless lie, but everyone, especially the magistrate who boasted with his perfect research, his exemlary police work, believed it. People believe every lie if you tell it the right way, if you tell them what they think they already know. This is the trick most fraudsters use and so did I. I got papers with the name and date of birth of the real Erik Thorsson. I was eighteen now officially, in truth I was about ten years older. I as given to the contractor as an office boy to be trained as technical drafter. The city even tried to find a new foster family for me. I was eighteen, but I would be considered an adult when I would be twentyone.
I was introduced to the contractor. His name was Roman Ferre. He was a tall man with thick glasses. When he looked up at me as I stood there with my hands clasped behind my back, I noticed that his face was not perfect. He concealed his under his large moustache, but the lips were perfectly normal on the left side and looked swollen at the right. They were trice as large as normal lips at the right corner of his mouth, it looked as if he had a small ball in his lips and it was even heightened by his smile.
"Erik Thorsson?" He asked and I nodded, standing with my hands clasped behind my back. He got up and walked around me, examining me as if I was a horse he wanted to buy. "I do not like this. I don't take in apprentices as technical drafters or secretaries. And you are by far too weak for working on the building site, I need strong men there. I am giving you a chance because I owe my friend a favor. I give you one months. You will not receive payment. You can sleep in the room in the office where you will work. You will share the table with my family. And after that one months I will decide if I keep you in my employ or not."
I had to accept. He was offering me a place to stay, and if my bed was only a worn couch in corner of the office, and food. Being an apprentice I was grateful that he did not demand payment for educating me. It was a hard decision to accept his invitation to share his table because that meant I had to take off the nose and cover myself with a mask that allowed me to eat. Monsieur Ferre wanted to see my face. I tried to refuse and he threatened to throw me out - which would force me to go back to my life as a street vagrant for I did not have any illusions when it came to how many chances I would get in the future. This was the one chance in my life to start anew, to wipe out my past as if it had never happened.
He took my face with a calm acceptance. Obviously someone had informed him of this. But he admitted that it might not be the best idea if I sat at his table. His wife would allow me to eat in the kitchen.
"I have to decline that generous offer," I replied, "I just recovered from Typhoid fever. I must not be close to anything somenone else will eat. At least for now, that was the doctor's instructions. If I was allowed to eat in the office, I would prefer that."
He had a large house. In the basement was his office containing a salon designed for meeting with clients, several rooms as offices for secretary and technical drawer, his study, a bathroom and an indoor-toilet. That house had gaslight and a stove in each room. It was rather comfortable and the gaslight made sure one could work even in the night if it was necessary. Immediately I wondered if it had been such a good idea to accept to live there. I was given a large office room with a drawing table, a chair, a couch that would also serve as a bed and a cupboard for my private belongings - not that I had any except my mask and false nose.
I was given some second hand clothing from some charity foundation. That time I did not know but they were quite impressed with the story of the orphan who ran away from the circus to become a decent man. Well, the lie was too good not to believe them. They even invited me to go to church with them on Sunday morning. I did not want to. Certainly not. I hoped that Sunday would be a day I would be able to sleep all day long, but somehow I felt obligued to at least consider it because they really helped me. I was not sure why but I was grateful and felt I owed them something.
My first day in the office was a shock. The secretary - an elderly grey-haired man - pointed to a box full of paper and told me to begin with drawing the plans. I did not understand. "You are the technical drawer, aren't you?" he asked, "And this project has a deadline tomorrow at ten o'clock."
"Where is Monsieur Ferre?" I asked bewildered.
He sighed. "Not here. Obviously somewhere in the city trying to find more clients. As if we didn't already have more work than we can do, especially now that the archictect broke his arm and the technical drawer quit yesterday."
If I had really been an eighteen years old boy without any education and experience I would have run away now. But I was not. I was an experienced architect who had already worked for two kings - surely some client in a provincial city wouldn't be difficult. The project itself was not difficult. It was just about a renovation and expanding a slaughterhouse with a large flat for the butcher's family and an extra flat for his employees - they would have to share a room and sleep in bunk beds. There were sketches and notes about the specifications the client had given. They contained not even half of the information I needed for this.
With a sigh I began drawing the plans. First I took down what I assumed were the plans of the original building or at least close to that and then I began working on the rooms that had to be added. I used my own imagination and knowledge about calculations to fill the gaps. It wasn't hard to assume that I ought to use a design that was not beautiful but purely functional. A butcher surely would not pay for any ornaments but wanted something practical, easy to clean and cheap. Not knowing anything about the actual costs - I never had, in Persia and Turkey it was a "Money is not an issue-project". Here I would have to learn about calculations, costs for materials, for workers, for sub-contractors. But first things first, now I had to finish the plans. There was a deadline.
Madame Ferre brought me a pot with something she had cooked. It was only lukewarm now and I must have eaten it absent-mindedly without interrupting my work on the blueprints. I could here that Madame asked where Monsieur was and the secretary told her that he had not seen him that day. Madame complained loudely that her husband was not where he was expected to be and she had no idea and the deadlines... and I stopped listenting. Little did I know that I would hear that litany on regular basis from that day on.
I do remember working late into the night. The next morning I woke up, went to the stove to heat some water to prepare some tea. I was allowed to use a small metal pot for heating up water and I was allowed to take some of the tea from the small kitchen where usually tea and refreshments would be prepared for meetings with clients and whomever else.
The client came at a quarter to ten, Monsieur Ferre at a quarter past ten. According to the secretary this was normal.
"Where are the drafts?" Monsieur Ferre asked, clearly nervous not to find the architect and the technical drafter.
"You desk. By the way - the architect broke his arm and is unable to work and the technical drafter quit the day before yesterday. The new drafter you hired made the blueprints."
"New drafter? But...?" Obviously Monsieur Ferre didn't talk much with his secretary.
"Sir, did I do something wrong?" I asked, again taking the role of the nervous teenager I surely was not.
He studied the drafts. "They are not what I would have expected from someone who has not done this before. We will need to change them because you ignored some specifications from the client. But it is enough to present him a first draft. Come with me to the meeting, take notes and then you will correct them. And in the future, young sir, you will ask me before you do something. I am not paying you for wasting you time doing blueprints based on your fantasy and not the client's specifications!"
I stood there completely stunned, unable to say anything. I knew I was innocent of wasting time because he had not been there - how could I have asked him? I thought he might compliment me because I did very good work or at least show surprise, but he did not. He just took the plans and went into the meeting, calling over his shoulder: "Thorsson! Come with me and don't forget your notebook!"
In the meeting he introduced me as his assistant, whatever that meant. I sat there and took notes about the changes the client wanted. After that meeting Monsieur Ferre took me to his office and offered me a glass of wine. I accepted.
"You are neither eighteen nor inexperienced. You are either an architect or a master mason yourself and I suspect you to be my age," he told me, "Whatever you did to convince the magistrate that you were an unfortunate uneducated orphan - I call your bluff. Who are you really?"
I told him the same story I had told the magistrate - the truth. I told him that I was twentyseven or twentyeight and that I had already build for the Shah of Persia and the Turkish Sultan. And I told him that they wanted me dead so he would better not tell anyone about that.
He leaned back in his chair, studying me, which made me terribly nervous. Then he asked me to give him some sketches of the palace. I knew this could cost my life - if he believed me and somehow send a message to the Shah that I was alife, I am sure the Shah's assassins would have found and killed me in Belgium or anywhere I would go from there. That's why I refused but offered to design something else, to let him test my abilites. To give me another of his projects, this time giving me all the informations and even allow me to meet the clients and talk to them.
"I do not believe you that you build for kings in faraway countries. This sounds too fantastic. I think you were a master mason in another country and escaped after bankruptcy."
Yet another theory about my past I did not wish to deny. It was better if he didn't believe me. "Just don't tell anyone that I am not the boy they take me for," I begged. He winked at me. "I'd be a fool. I would have to pay you an adaequate salary for an architect if I did - so I can pay you as technikal draftsman. And you will be very grateful that you get paid at all."
I smiled at him. He was no fool. He knew that to him this was a chance to get an employee for one third the wages he'd have to pay any other with the necessary skills and he knew I could not complain without giving away that my new life was build on a lie.
What sounds like the worst possible beginning turned out the be the best that could ever happen to both of us for Monsieur Ferre gave me something I cherished much more than anything money could buy - he treated me as a colleague and friend. It was a small price for me to accept meager wages and long hours of work each day. What he did for me was invaluable - he introduced me into society in this provincial town. He forced me to accompany him to parties where he was invited, forced me to talk with clients, forced me to oversee building sites. To say he had to kick me every step out of the house would be an understatement. I hated to go out, I hated to be among people, but... it helped. With his help I slowly learned to find a place in life. I even had a small group where I felt I was welcome and that they even liked me. I fit in human society.
Thank you for reading. This was supposed to be a one-shot but when it became much longer than expected I decided to cut it into three chapters. Maybe I will expand this story but that will be rather a series of loosely connected one-shots and not an ongoing fanfic. Would you like to read more about Erik being an honest man in that contracting enterprize? Please just leave a review.